When an ancient melody sneaks up, and suddenly your lungs tighten, allowing you to exhale only the memories. The ones you refuse to acknowledge because there is no point to their existence.
Take the soft, malleable almond paste in your hand and begin breaking it up into chunks. The scent of a biscottificio in Castellammare di Stabia, Italy, stimulates my remembrances, a stab in the heart, but in a good way. When life was simple, and stopping at a local bakery to buy a small bag of freshly made, tender, almond-scented Maddalene was what happiness meant. And it did then. For many years I’ve attempted to recreate that flavor of childhood, that golden cookie that warmed my soul, a ray of sheer, incomparable joy.
Memories inspire the best recipes. Simply follow the aromas in your mind, and your hands will know where to reach for the ingredients.
Almond paste, carefully prepared around Christmas time, perfected by the waiting period, creamy soft, a little morsel of Paradise lost.
The fishing boats were distancing themselves from the shore, at the Granatello harbor in Portici, launching their nocturnal adventure. The drowsy sun melted into a liquid carpet of orange and pink on the placid sea; the acrid smell of salt water invaded my nostrils. Happiness was intense and absolute, and even the harsh graffiti on the low, thick walls of the pier were a love letter. The upcoming night wasn’t frightening, then, it would caress me with dreams of everlasting joy, a future of a myriad moments like these.
The softened butter is already in the large stainless steel bowl, it welcomes the almond paste chunks I drop in, incorporating them into a silky embrace. The eggs are slowly warming in a bowl of hot water, to ease their blending into the butter-almond paste mixture. The cake pan is waiting on the table, thoroughly greased so the temperamental batter will not cling fiercely to the metal, but will slide out as a beautiful, solid cake. Yes, I’ve recreated the Maddalene cookies of my childhood, fueled by the exhilarating onslaught of memories, worked it into a ring-shaped cake that smells just like my car rides back home, the packet of warm pastries on my lap.
Twist the painful ones into the tender, uncomplicated ones. The memories.
When the summer twilight of long ago becomes too agonizing to evoke, paint it over, and make a cake. My kitchen is yellow, tranquil, maternal. A cocoon in the midst of the anguish that a restless brain produces. A brain that continues to return to a time when the heart was light with hope and anticipation. Pathetic wishes of the young. Just sitting ducks for the violent blows of reality.
Back to my cake, almost ready to emerge from the oven. Another batter is sitting in a green glass bowl, a fragrant Banana Bread to be dunked in hot coffee on Sunday morning. The Kitchen Aid mixer is my friend, a stable presence on the counter, shiny white and enticing. It knows when I need to slay my demons; the huge, rounded metal bowl will accept flour, sugar, cinnamon and my crushed dreams, mix them all up, and a pastry masterpiece will materialize.
Pain gives birth to writers and bakers.
The sizzling warmth on my shoulders was real, then, but I didn’t understand. Now I do. Even though a lifetime has tried to erase it. Not possible, o cruel time, not possible.
The bananas are ripe to perfection, I mash them with a fork, then pour on some brandy and vanilla. Let this passion for baking take flight. The elegant, slim, French loaf pan will enclose it all, and bring it to life in the oven, in all its old-fashioned glory.
No, don’t cry, don’t think. Bake a cake.